Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Breaking Down Barriers for Women in Tech

Dr. Klawe chats with students
     Against a background of persistent high unemployment, tech jobs go begging.  These days even traditional retailers seek engineers to upgrade their websites as online sales skyrocket. Facebook recently announced a major presence in New York searching for East Coast tech talent.  The shortage of graduates in what is  known as STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math, has become a national problem, drawing the attention of the White House last fall  which sponsored its first ever science fair.  But even when brainy high school kids gravitate toward STEM courses, their interest often wanes in college.  One stubbornly undeveloped group who represent a minority in almost all areas of STEM is women.  But a nationally recognized computer scientist, mathematician and educator is determined to reverse the trend. When  Dr. Maria Klawe (pronounced Kla Vay) became president of Harvey Mudd College in Southern California five years ago, she  embarked on a strategic effort, similar to an overhaul  she led at Princeton in her former position there as Dean of  Engineering, to increase the presence of women in STEM fields.
      At Harvey Mudd, one of the Claremont Colleges,  Dr. Klawe’s strategy has already produced dramatic results. When she arrived, 33% of the student body was female, but only 10% of computer science majors were female. Today, 42% of the student body is female, and 40% major in computer science.  Females majoring in engineering now account for 37%, and in physics their number is just over 20%.  
    Dr. Klawe knows the problem first hand.  As she quips, her resume has been “full of firsts” for about 23 years.   Before a stint as Head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, she spent eight years at IBM, ending up as manager at IBM of Mathematics and the Related Computer Science Department at their AlmadenResearch Center; she then served Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia before she was recruited by Princeton. Currently, she also serves as one of ten members of the board of Microsoft. 
    But she feels lucky to be president of Harvey Mudd, “a haven of geeky, science-tech kids who face a more challenging curriculum than at much bigger institutions,” she notes. Her strategic plan for STEM gender equality works on several fronts.  The first project was to make recruiting materials more female friendly and supportive. “We wanted to make clear,” Dr. Klawe says, “that we like well-roundedness, so we are interested in dancers and poets and musicians, who are also unusually good at math and science.  We’ve also eliminated hazing and have become very good at nurturing.”  Other changes include a curriculum revision, a program of paid research projects starting the summer after freshman year, and participation of women at national tech conferences.
          The reluctance of women to enter STEM fields seems to have deep roots-- which often don’t disappear even in the face of success. One of Dr. Kale’s favorite topics is what she calls The Imposter Syndrome.  “Even women who get into MIT, and major in engineering,” she says, “often continue to second guess themselves, worrying that success was a mistake. So the first time they get a B on an exam, they switch to a major in the humanities.  Yet males can get all C’s and think they’re doing great. It’s just normal for males to overestimate their success and for women to worry that they don’t deserve to be where they are. That insecurity often haunts them into their professional lives.”
Dr. Alvarado at work
     One professor who helped Dr. Klawe tackle the disparity by revamping the Harvey Mudd introductory computer science course is Christine Alvarado, an MIT PhD grad, who admits   she had to learn how to navigate the “cultural divide” between men and women in science once she understood  “you don’t have to stay up all night and work seven days a week to succeed because that’s not what I’m about.”  Collaborating with three other CS faculty members,  Professor Alvarado changed the first year  programming course based on Java, “which was frankly just not very practical,” to a more collaborative, problem solving  course to offer  students “creative opportunities to do what computer scientists really do.”  It teaches the Python language which is easier to apply to Web development and develops skills that can be applied to engineering, math and other subjects.  Also, the course is now divided into sections so that students who are experienced in programming don’t discourage less experienced but equally talented classmates.
    Another strategy with big impact, says Professor Alvarado, is taking first year students to attend the Grace HopperCelebration, an annual conference of thousands of female computer scientists which showcases successful women scientists. “It’s really helpful,” says Professor Alvarado, “for very young women to see women on the stage participating in panels discussing how they can manage their careers and maintain a sense of balance in their lives.”  Once the most despised course, says Dr. Klawe, “Introduction to Computer Science is now the most loved.”
     What gives a small college like Harvey Mudd with a total enrollment of only 750 students, the courage and determination to take on national problems of gender inequality in the sciences?  Dr. Klawe credits her faculty because “we’re the only place in the country where you can teach this quality of student—we’re competitive with MIT, Caltech and Stanford—and be rewarded for teaching.  That’s not to say we don’t value research, but if you’re a crummy teacher, I can tell you that you won’t get tenure here.”
     But the Harvey Mudd model is not lost on bigger institutions, which lose an alarming number of STEM majors after tough introductory courses.  Duke, University of Californiaat Berkeley, and Northwestern are already adopting some of the Mudd strategies.  Meanwhile, Dr. Klawe mission continues, as she speaks out on the importance of gender equality at other universities, companies and industry events—whenever she is not rolling around campus on her beloved skateboard chatting up students.


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